Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

by Don Keith
I am on record as predicting that the AM commercial broadcast band will soon be scrapped and given to Amateur Radio operators.  The reason is simple: listenership to AM radio--and especially among that desireable young demographic--has dwindled to almost nothing.

There are reasons for that:

1) AM fidelity is simply not competitive with FM, CDs, MP3s, online and other means of listening to audio.

2) AM, by its nature, is prone to electrical interference, ranging from lightning to LED lighting to your neighbor's leaf blower.

3) AM waves propagate great distances when the sun goes down. This meant that from the beginning, and to crowbar in as many radio stations as possible, regulators made many stations use directional antenna arrays to protect each other as well as Canadian and Mexican stations.

4) Back then (mostly in the early 1950s), those directional stations with their bunches of towers (to get a directional signal) were built in places so their signals would cover the geography where most of their listeners lived.  Guess what.  Cities have grown in the past sixty years, suburbs have been built in areas where those stations can no longer be heard, and especially at night.  I just saw some stats that say that in many cities there is not a single AM station that covers its entire current city of license 24 hours a day.

5) Because of these factors, AM station owners have gone to mostly cheap (as well as bad and boring) nationally-syndicated programming or even cheaper ethnic formats serving small niches.  Those moves have chased most listeners to FM...or to the internet, Pandora, or phone apps.

Well, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting in the USA, has been studying the problem for more than two years.  Finally last week they issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on what they believe will be the savior of AM radio.

Most of the things they have come up with are technical, relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on daytime-only and directional AMs to give them a bit more coverage.  One would be less restrictive on towers, which are the antennas for AM stations, because it has become so difficult to find real estate or zoning ordinances or willing neighbors that will allow those six or eight ugly old towers and the many acres on which they stand.  (As a programming consultant I once had to tell a station owner that the land on which his towers stood was worth far more than his AM station was or ever would be.  It was true.  Now, many AM stations are simply turning in their licenses and selling all that prime development land.)

All well and good, I say, but far too little far too late.  Most AM operators simply can't afford to move their transmitting facilities to some other place that will give them a tad more coverage.  And none of these things are going to send listeners gleefully swarming back to listen to AM radio. I fear that window of opportunity has long since passed.

The really big proposal in the FCC's rulemaking, and the one that has AM station owners dancing a jig, is that the FCC will make it easier for them to apply for FM translators and put their AM programming on a spot on the FM band.  Translators are very low-powered FM transmitters that use antennas at relatively low heights.  They were originally designed to allow FM broadcasters to fill in "holes" in areas in the markets to which they were licensed that might have weaker signals.  Those "holes" were typically caused by mountains or big buildings.

Things related to translators have gotten pretty confused.  People who don't even own a station have been able to apply for licenses for them and they promptly turn around and sell them for big bucks to existing licensees.  Why would they want them?  A translator allows those who already have a big FM station to put a different format on one of their alternate channels (FMs have the ability to transmit several more channels but only listeners equipped with so-called "HD radios" can hear them...unless that programming is also being re-transmitted on a translator.).  Those big operators also have some AMs, too, and they can put a music format, for example, on an AM but count on the rebroadcast of that format on the translator to make them money or block a competitor from adapting that format.  

You may have noticed that the FM dial in your town has filled up with new stations that you really can't get on your radio very well.  And they seem to be mostly music with the occasional disembodied voice and some commercials.  And when they do the station identification at the top of the hour it sounds like someone reading the contents of their bowl of vegetable soup: "W261FQ Nowheresville WAAA-AM Big Town, WFFM-FM HD2 Big Town," or similar.

So, the move that will save AM radio is to allow more AM operators to have a presence on the the FM dial.  Oh, that means they will have to keep that AM station on the air in order to allow them to keep the translator happily filled with stellar programming and information...and commercials for which they can charge more because they will be on FM, too!  But then where's the incentive for the AM owner to spend all the money to move the AM towers and transmitter so the station can be heard where people actually live in the 21st century?  

Actually, in smaller markets the answer might be, "Yes."  Daytime AM stations...and there are almost a thousand of those that have to go away when the sun goes down...that truly want to serve the needs of their city can do shows, play music, carry local high school football and the like on that sparkling new translator.  And so long as the town is not all that big or the area full of mountains and valleys they may be able to cover most of the people they need to reach.

On the other hand, it seems to me that allowing bigger market AMs to get a translator or two or three to give them an FM signal only assures that nobody will be left to listen to that AM programming.  Then, at what point does the FCC say, "Well, we tried but it didn't work.  So, Ham Radio, enjoy that wonderful new extension to the 160-meter Amateur Radio band."

By trying to save AM, they will have killed it.

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